LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Don’t do the White thing

Karl Laves

Welcome to WKU all you first-year students. I mean that. You are why we have jobs. You give us the chance to practice our art and science of education. But please consider the following challenge! During your first year here don’t do the White thing. Folks, when I say the White thing I am aware that I am using a stereotype that may not apply to all white people and it may apply to people that are not white.

Here is what I mean by the White thing. I am an old white male. I came to college eons ago thinking that my admission was due completely to my hard work and IQ. I assumed that anyone who came to college had also worked as hard and was as bright. Many years later I realized that quite a few lazy people, as well as some not so bright people, were also admitted. I also learned that a lot of hard working and really bright people were not admitted. Here is why some of those people were not admitted.

In addition to my hard work and intelligence, and in hindsight I didn’t work nearly as hard in high school as I let on, I was also able to seek admission because my parents could afford the tuition. My parents could afford the tuition because of their hard work and intelligence, and also because Dad was able to take out a loan to open up his clinic in Springfield, Missouri. You may not know that Springfield held a public hanging on Easter Sunday, 1906, of three black men. Dad could easily get a loan at that time in Springfield; he was white. Getting such a loan does wonders for one’s credit rating and being white did the rest. Whether we had the cash or not, I could always get a loan for college.

I had some other advantages being a white college student. Not that I asked for the advantages, but honestly I have to admit that they did exist and they did benefit me. If I disagreed with a professor in class I was considered to be curious and passionate about my studies. If a black student next to me disagreed he was considered “uppity,” as that was a term used back then. If I was walking around campus late at night I would not be stopped by the city police. My black friends knew that if they were out past a certain time they would be stopped. If some white punk did something stupid or illegal, no one held his behavior against me. My black friends didn’t have that advantage. If a black man robbed a store, then black students were considered suspects for the next few weeks.

Okay, so what is my point? Am I saying white people have it easy? No. Many white people have suffered throughout history. The Irish, some of my people, were treated poorly in an early time in American history. Over time, the power of those anti-Irish types faded. It is easy for whites to think that the same power shift has occurred for people of color. But it hasn’t. You don’t have to go back very far in modern history to find laws, policies and traditions that dismissed, discouraged or denied people of color. The effects are still alive. Many people, white people and people of color, are still trapped in cultures and communities where pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps aren’t enough.

It took me a while to understand that part of the reason I could so easily go to college was that every generation that I know of in my family went to college. Every teacher I ever had told me I could go to college. Every school I attended had a healthy budget and high security. I was never worried that I might be hurt while at school. Bored, maybe, but never hurt. The idea of not going to college never occurred to me.

If you come from a family of smokers, you are more likely to smoke. If you come from a family that speaks French you are more likely to speak French. If you come from a family that went to college you are more likely to go to college, even if you have below average intelligence and you are the biggest bum that ever lived.

Don’t do the White thing; don’t assume that the people you meet here had the same experience or the same advantages as you. Get out of your box for a while. Meet people that don’t look like you. Not as an experiment, but for the real possibility that you will like some of them. If you are white, you don’t have to feel guilty about these advantages, but you can choose to do your part to see that these advantages are available to all students.

Don’t get caught up in simple fault finding. Some people want to rag on young black men for wearing their pants low. Fewer people seem to be ragging on young white women who let their thongs show. When I was in college, we wore short shorts and really long tube socks. Today students wear really long shorts and short socks. Let’s not get caught up in fashion. Rap, country, rock, indie … it’s music. Let’s get mad over the important things. Like how the world really isn’t fair for everyone.

So welcome to WKU. I mean it. While you are here, understand that you have the potential, with your education, to become a powerful person in our society. You will inherit a position of power whether you want it or not. Your degree will open doors for you. Will you open doors with your degree? Will you try to not do the White thing?